Panchal and Easwaran: Working together, fighting for the same spot

The two open up about batting together, learning from Dravid and Rahane, and being kept together by the BCCI

Abhimanyu Easwaran and Priyank Panchal have both made strong cases for a call-up to the national level  •  Saurabh Somani/ESPNcricinfo

Abhimanyu Easwaran and Priyank Panchal have both made strong cases for a call-up to the national level  •  Saurabh Somani/ESPNcricinfo

The Indian team's move to have Rohit Sharma open the batting in Tests has yielded rich dividends. The Rohit-Mayank Agarwal combination looks set for now, and Shubman Gill has been pencilled in as the reserve opener. Then there is Prithvi Shaw, who fell off the rails after making a resounding Test debut.
But, in recent years, Indian domestic cricket has nurtured a rich pool of talent and, consequently, the Indian selectors and team management have two more young openers to turn to in case the top choices fail for any reason or injury.
Priyank Panchal and Abhimanyu Easwaran have ticked every box on the way to the doorstep of the national team. They have both made big runs for the past few years for their states (Gujarat and Bengal), in the Duleep Trophy, and for India A. Since his breakout season in 2016-17 when he scored 1310 runs, Panchal has made the most runs by any batsman in first-class matches in India, and he's done it despite a bout of malaria right after his most successful season, which meant he had to earn his place back in the India A sides - which he promptly did with continuing high-scoring seasons. Easwaran is fourth in the list of highest run-getters, and came into his own in the last Ranji season, reeling off one superlative effort after another: he got 186 against Hyderabad, put in on a damp pitch, weathering the tough period, and capitalised when conditions got easier. Two weeks later, he hit 183 not out in a successful fourth-innings chase of 323 against Delhi. And a week after that, he made 201 not out against Punjab in the second innings after Bengal had conceded a lead of 260 runs.
They might be competing for the same spot, but the two players share a good relationship, and partnership. When ESPNcricinfo sat them at the start of India's domestic season, conversation flowed.
You've both been piling on the runs in domestic cricket and for India A. Do you feel that a spot in the Indian team is within reach?
Panchal: My job is to score runs, and that's the only thing I know to do. That's also the only thing in my control. I want to play for the country, every cricketer does. That's the dream when you start playing. When you score runs, you are in the zone and each time you think, 'this is my innings, this is my game'. You do that match by match, then you string together scores for eight-ten matches, and then keep on doing that. So after that when you get a call-up, you feel like your hard work has brought results.
Easwaran: It's similar for me. I don't set goals for the season. What I can do best is get runs. Selection is out of control, so I don't think too much about it. If the chance comes, I'll be really happy, because the dream has always been to play for the country. I hope I can keep piling those runs and get the chance soon.
What have been your experiences as part of the India A team?
Panchal: You face challenges that are different from what you face in domestic cricket. You watch other players, see their mental approach, and their attitude on the field. If you learn from that, it really helps. It's a big step up in quality from domestic cricket because you're going to face 15 players who have been chosen because they have performed in their domestic leagues. They are the top players there, and we are the top players here.
Easwaran: It's been a learning process with India A, playing against different oppositions, against good quality bowlers, who have played international cricket. I've played in West Indies, England and New Zealand, so we get to play in lots of different conditions. That is something you'll face when you play Test cricket. That is a big gain. Then spending time with cricketers who have done really well - our team-mates and the opposition as well - that also helps. With Rahul [Dravid] sir being there, he was a big plus for us. You have a person like that with you, it's always really nice.
What have you learnt from Dravid?
Easwaran: There was a Ranji season where I was just getting 50s, 60s in whatever tour I was going on. But he told me to just stay in the present. It's not about the score, it's about what I need to do right now. Like against a particular bowler, or on a particular pitch, what does my team need me to do? If I focus on that, I have a chance of batting longer and getting those runs.
But this is the sort of input anyone can give. What did he say that was special?
Easwaran: It was not that I wasn't batting well, I was. But I had this phobia, I think - before the match itself, I would come to him and say, 'I'm getting out in the 60s'. So he just told me not to look at the scoreboard and keep focusing on the job in hand. It's very simple, but the most effective thing that he could have told me. It worked for me and I've been doing it for a while now. It's not about what he said, but more that he told me exactly what I needed that time. We can always message him, say something like, 'Sir, I need to talk to you for five minutes, what time can I call?' He is open to us. He's told us he's available whenever we want. Right now, he's not with us, but still we can call him if we want anything.
Panchal: It's human psychology also. When someone like Rahul Dravid tells you something, it makes a difference. We will naturally tend to believe what he has said. It comes with the weight of experience and of having done that, been through that. When I was appointed captain of an India A team, he came in the practice session and just told me, 'don't rush too much; I know you are the captain, and you have been given the opportunity, but it's not necessary to try to do lots of things together.' And I was doing that. You tend to become very excited. But he told me to just be normal, do as I've always been doing things. Let it come to me rather than go to fetch it. That was really important advice at that point of time.
Easwaran: The thing with Rahul sir is that he won't just come and talk to you randomly. He'll say a few things, and those will be what you need at that time. He won't speak for ten minutes, maybe just one minute. But that minute will be really important for you. When he's in the dressing room, the mood itself is different.
Panchal: Mazaa aata hai! (It's a lot of fun).
You've both had productive outings with India A in the past year, against Sri Lanka at home, and against West Indies away. Can you talk a bit on that?
Panchal: We had a great time against Sri Lanka. The pitches were not flat, but we managed to score 370-odd runs in a day. He made a 200, I made 160 and we had an amazing opening partnership. It was great to play their spinners, Akila Dananjaya and Lakshan Sandakan - we batted really well against them.
West Indies was different from what we face in India. The pitches were difficult, but it was still possible to score runs. Chemar Holder particularly was bowling well. [Rahkeem] Cornwall also bowled well. The 58 runs I scored on the day 19 wickets fell was a top innings for me. We were five down for 20 or something [India A were 20 for 5 in the first innings, after West Indies A had made 318], and Holder was bowling really well.
Easwaran: The Sri Lanka series was played at home so the pitches were similar to what we've been playing on for a long time. That partnership we had, for 350 or something, was a memorable one for me. Batting first on any wicket, if you put on 350 runs while opening, it's a moral victory for your team. Dominating and winning that series 2-0 was something I really enjoyed.
In West Indies, it was a different challenge. Playing with the Dukes ball in different conditions against bowlers who know their conditions better than we do - I think we did really well to win the series there. We had to adjust every single day. The pitches kept changing with the weather, and the Dukes ball under lights in a four-day game, that was a challenge I had never faced before. The quality of bowlers was really good. In the three games we played, the ball behaved differently in all three games.
[India A beat Sri Lanka 2-0 at home in a two-match series in May 2019, then beat West Indies A 2-0 in a three-match series away in July 2019]
During your India A stints, you've had team-mates from the Indian side too. What have you learnt from them?
Easwaran: I played with Ajinkya Rahane, and I could see the seriousness he had for that match. For him, playing India A shouldn't be that big a deal, but the way he was preparing was as if it was a Test match for him, which was really good to see. And his intensity on the field… I got to learn a lot from that. He's come a level down from the Indian team, and he still had that intensity. He was very involved with us, talking to us, he knew all our names and everything.
Panchal: We keep on asking the questions. It depends on your hunger, if you want to know something, you should go up to more experienced players and ask them. Nobody is going to come and just start telling you things, so you have to ask. I asked several players about how is it different in international cricket, how bowlers are at that level, how I can improve my game, things like that. And they are down to earth enough that you can ask those questions and they share everything. It ends up helping all cricketers, because the experiences they have shared with us, we will share with others.
As opening batsmen, you need to have a bit of a bond going - Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer are the prime examples - to have greater success. So how do you build that bond since you don't play for the same state?
Easwaran: The BCCI has helped us get that bond. We've been having seats together in the flight, and we were in the same team for the Duleep Trophy also… two eight-hour flights while going (to West Indies) and two eight-hour flights while returning. We were sat together throughout.
[To Panchal] What's your room number [in the hotel they were staying in]?
Priyank: 192.
Easwaran: I'm 194! The BCCI's trying to keep us really close! It's a great thing. If we stay as close in the middle the whole day, nothing better.

Saurabh Somani is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo